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Doctor Who: Smith & Jones (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Smith & Jones originally aired in 2007.

It’s only roentgen radiation. We used to play with roentgen bricks in the nursery. It’s safe for you to come out. I’ve absorbed it all. All I need to do is expel it. If I concentrate I can shake the radiation out of my body and into one spot. It’s in my left shoe. Here we go, here we go. Easy does it. Out, out, out, out, out. Out, out. Ah, ah, ah, ah! It is, it is, it is, it is, it is hot. Hold on.

Done.

You’re completely mad.

You’re right. I look daft with one shoe.

– the Doctor and Martha get off to a good start

I’d argue that Smith & Jones is Russell T. Davies’ most successful season-opener of Doctor Who. By its third year, Davies had firmly established the format of the show, to the point where he could successfully lose both of his leading actors. Christopher Eccleston had been replaced by David Tennant at the end of the first season, and Billy Piper had departed at the end of the second. Davies had demonstrated that the series could survive a cast rotation like that, and there’s a sense of looseness about Smith & Jones that suggests the show has really found its comfort zone.

The reason that Smith & Jones works so very well is not that it has an abundance of ambition. Its goal is relatively modest: to tell an enjoyable modern day adventure while introducing a new companion to the show. The beauty is in the execution. Smith & Jones races along, barely pausing to catch its breath, relying on Tennant’s abundant charisma, a constant flow of clever high concepts and a charming new companion to carry it through.

It works surprisingly well.

Standing in the Earthlight...

Standing in the Earthlight…

I really like Smith & Jones, but let’s talk a little about Martha, the new companion introduced here. Let’s talk about her in a broader context than this one episode.

Martha is a bit of a problem when it comes to the companions in the new series. She’s very clearly constructed as a “rebound” for the Doctor. Indeed, this first episode sees the two kissing, while he makes it clear that he’s only taking her way for a one-night stand one adventure. He’s fairly insistent about it. “Just one trip to say thanks,” he explains – repeatedly. “You get one trip, then back home.” Stating it like that is extremely dickish, even if we already know he doesn’t really mean it. Tennant is easily one of the most charming leading men the show has ever had, and it’s mainly thanks to his charm that we come out of this whole thing not hating the Doctor.

He's radiating douchebagness...

He’s radiating douchebag-ness…

He even gets to explicitly tell Martha, “She’s fine. She’s– Not that you’re replacing her.” The Tenth Doctor has always had a bit of difficulty with emotional intelligence, and his behaviour towards Martha is easily the least healthy relationship inside the TARDIS since the Sixth Doctor and Peri. And that is not a good thing, even if the show acknowledges it this time.

I liked Rose when she was first introduced. The idea of a working-class companion to whom the audience could relate represented one of the better additions that Davies made to the show in Rose. Unfortunately, the character had a very clear arc and Rose completed her journey in The Parting of the Ways. She proved that she didn’t need the Doctor to be awesome, and she saved him. It was a great moment, and it remains a great moment.

Leather rip...

Leather rip…

However, the problem is that Rose really had nowhere to go from there, and the Tenth Doctor and Rose became this extremely smug pair. The scripts occasionally (Tooth and Claw) called them out on it, but it diminished Rose as a character. When Rose left in Doomsday, she left a sizeable hole in the TARDIS. I can understand why Davies felt that a significant portion of The Runaway Bride had to deal with the Tenth Doctor’s reaction to her departure. Unfortunately, allowing the Doctor to carry that angst over for full season may have been an error in judgement.

I’m not arguing that Rose wasn’t a special companion or anything like that. The time we spend focusing on Rose has more to do with the changing nature of television than her importance when compared to Romana or Liz Shaw. Television has become increasingly serialised and character development has become a greater part of modern television. The departure of a character – particularly the longest-serving regular – is an event and it has to be dealt with. I just think the third season handled it too heavily.

Tying it all together...

Tying it all together…

There’s a big moment at the end of the episode, where the Doctor names his lost companion to Martha. It feels like a “big” moment – as if the episode has been building to it. It’s like the reveal of the fate of the Time Lords in The End of the World, or the naming of Gallifrey in The Sound of Drums. “There was recently, a friend of mine,” the Tenth Doctor explains. “Rose, her name was. Rose. And we were together.”

Interestingly, this seems to overtly hint at a romantic relationship, stopping just short of romantically confirming it. I have no real problem with that, save it diminishes some of the innate alien-ness of the Doctor, and “alien-ness” is one of the defining traits of Tennant’s Doctor. However, that moment feels significant. And I don’t mind the mention at the end of Smith & Jones. Unfortunately, Rose keeps coming up throughout the season, to the point where both Martha and I roll our eyes when her name is mentioned in Utopia.

Grabbing the Judoon by the horn...

Grabbing the Judoon by the horn…

The problem is that this defines Martha in terms of Rose. The Doctor never sees her as anything more than “Rose lite” or “Potential Rose 2.0.” It’s less than flattering to her. To be fair, Davies does paint this as a character flaw on the part of the Doctor. He’s meant to seem a little insecure around her, and his inability to understand her frustration at being categorised like that is clearly intended to be a negative character trait. (Indeed, Martha calls him on it in The Lazarus Experiment.)

That is great for the Doctor as a character, as Davies has demonstrated (and would continue to demonstrate) a knack for deconstructing his central character. The best parts of The Last of the Time Lords hinge on the Doctor not thinking through any of the consequences of his actions, for his companions or for the human race as a whole. Davies’ best season finalé, The Parting of the Ways, hinges on the fatal flaw in the Doctor’s modus operandi.

Inconstant companion...

Inconstant companion…

Unfortunately, this short-changes Martha as a character. As there are only two leads in the show, the way that we see the characters is generally significantly defined by how they relate to each other. We know that the Doctor is wrong to think of her as a low-rent substitute for Rose, we don’t have much else to go on. She seems nice. She fills the role well – she has all the typical characteristics we expect in a companion.

Freema Agyeman is solid and genuinely does some great stuff with the material that she is given, but there’s not enough over the season to support her. The problem is that the show never really gives us anything more substantial than “is competent companion in own right” and “is not Rose.” We reach the point where The End of Time pairs Martha off with Mickey. Mickey, of course, being a character with whom she has spent a minimum amount of time. I implications are less than ideal – it seems that if the Doctor can give Rose a substitute Doctor, than he can also hook Mickey up with a substitute Rose.

A Judoon platoon upon the moon...

A Judoon platoon upon the moon…

Still, all that is in the future. Smith & Jones does a great job introducing Martha and setting pretty much everything up. It’s a testament to just how comfortable Davies is getting that literally all of Martha’s expanded family stuff is handled very efficiently. It doesn’t clutter the episode up. Like Rose, we get a sense she has a life, but because Davies defined Rose’s life so thoroughly, he only needs to offer a rough sketch of Martha’s. “I’ve got exams. I’ve got things to do. I have to go into town first thing and pay the rent, I’ve got my family going mad.”

It does feel like it’s being adapted from a template, but it’s handled quickly enough that it gives Martha a background without distracting from the plot. Smith & Jones has a delightfully fun Doctor Who run-around adventure at its core, featuring “a Judoon platoon upon the moon.” Which was apparently written just so David Tennant would have trouble pronouncing it in his English accent. Not that too many would have complained had he slipped into his native Scottish accent half-way through.

A Doctor's on call at this hospital...

A Doctor’s on call at this hospital…

The concept is delightfully surreal, revelling in the juxtaposition of the mundane and the impossible that really defines the revived television show. Here it’s the sight of a hospital transported to the moon in order to avoid those pesky intergalactic jurisdiction issues. There’s also an ageing salt vampire who drinks blood through a straw and has picked the hospital as the most logical place to bide her time. “It’s the perfect hiding place. Blood banks downstairs for a midnight feast, and all this equipment ready to arm myself with should the police come looking.”

Like a lot of the better Russell T. Davies scripts, the action moves fast enough that we never really question what’s going on. Instead, it’s just an engaging collection of nice character moments and clever plot points. I quite like, for example, the Tenth Doctor’s attempts to get the vampire to tell him her plan, even if his ego won’t let him play entirely dumb. “But isn’t that a magnetic resonance imaging thing? Like a ginormous sort of a magnet?” He pauses, realises he might sound too smart. “I did magnetics GCSE.” Maybe still too clever. “Well, I failed, but all the same.” When she explains the force of the field she plans to generate, he’s shocked. “Oh, that’s a bit strong…” And then he realises he might be tipping his hand, “… isn’t it?”

Now we're screwed...

Now we’re screwed…

The script is packed with nice little touches and clever moments like that, with Davies clearly having a bit of freedom due to the fact that the plotting is relatively straight-forward. One of the strengths of Davies a script writer is his character work, and the supporting cast in Smith & Jones feels exceptionally well-developed. I particularly like the consultant, Mr. Stoker. (Which is, of course, a nod to vampire lore.) I wish there were an alternate universe where the Doctor took Mr. Stoker with him. Then again, we’d have to reach the point where the show was comfortable with a single male companion, let alone a middle-aged one.

The script also allows Tennant to be as charming as possible. I remarked above that Tennant’s charm goes a long way towards covering up the fact that the Tenth Doctor is pretty mean to Martha, and it’s worth remarking how comfortable Tennant has become in the role. He’s been playing the Doctor for a year, and it feels so incredibly natural that it seems effortless. Tennant seemed to understand the role from his first appearance, but the ease with which he inhabits the part is particularly evident here. There’s a sense of fun and excitement and enthusiasm with Tennant’s Doctor that makes him a joy to watch.

The gathering storm...

The gathering storm…

One of the more interesting aspects of Smith & Jones, and one that is kept in the background, is the fact that it demonstrates how the Doctor chooses a companion. Despite what the show leads us to believe, it isn’t just anybody who gets to travel. The Doctor has made mistakes before (as with Adam in The Long Game), but it’s clear here that Martha is the ideal candidate. Obviously he is going to be chosen, as it is her name in the credits, her family drama in the opening scene, but Smith & Jones actually makes an effort to explain why. It’s a forty-five minute job interview.

It isn’t merely a case of being in the right place and the right time, as Rose may have made it appear. We are presented in Smith & Jones with a bunch of trainee doctors. There’s Martha, Swales and Morgenstern. Each of the three reacts to the same situation, but only one earns the Doctor’s attention. Swales, for example, reacts with fear and scepticism. She is completely unable to adapt to the fantastic new reality that is facing her.

I wonder what Stephen King would have to say about this...

I wonder what Stephen King would have to say about this…

When the Doctor asks how the hospital could still be breathing, Swales simply replies, “We can’t be.” That close-minded (and irrational) response immediately gets her struck from the list of potential candidates. “Obviously we are, so don’t waste my time.” The Tenth Doctor is just a bit callous here, so he invites Martha to follow him, but doesn’t want Swales tagging along. “Come on. Not her, she’d hold us up.”

Morgenstern, on the other hand, holds himself together a bit better. However, his main problem is that he is a spineless coward. He cooperates with the Judoon and tries to minimise the hassle as they catalogue the hospital. It seems like a decent enough idea, and one that has merit. Unfortunately, when a Judoon executes one of the patients, all Morgenstern can offer is a half-hearted, “You didn’t have to do that.”

They've landed in it this time...

They’ve landed in it this time…

Morgenstern is hardly the most heroic of characters, especially when compared to Martha’s courage in risking her life for the safety of the Doctor and everybody in the hospital. Naturally, Morgenstern also has a bit of an ego, and tries to capitalise on his actions on the moon. Interviewed by the press, he tries to play up the importance of his role in the crisis, “I told them I represented the human race. I told them, you can’t do that. I said, we have rights.”

Martha, on the other hand, demonstrates an ability to think and act quickly. When she notes that the hospital isn’t airtight, so there must be air on the moon, the Doctor approves, “Very good point. Brilliant, in fact.” Even when she’s incorrect, he still encourages her. When she suggests they are trespassing on the moon, he notes that it’s the wrong answer, but that doesn’t mean that it is a bad one. “No, but I like that. Good thinking.”

A washout...

A washout…

Martha effectively aces the Doctor Who companion entrance exam, and I think that Smith & Jones might plausibly be the best companion introduction in the history of the show. However, that might not bode especially well for Martha, given that her main character attributes seem to be a technical aptitude for “companion”-ing and the fact that she is not Rose. Both of which are established very well here. Unfortunately, that seems to be where her character development begins and ends.

Still, those are problems for another day. Smith & Jones does an exceptional job kicking off the third season of the revival, and stands out as one of the best season-openers in the long history of the show.

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